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Changes to UK local government
aim to streamline decision-making
By Brian Moore, Editorial Consultant

Changes to UK local government | Types of local government | Electing councillors | Local government revenues | Decision-making | Directly elected Mayors | Local government in London |

15 March 2004: The structure and function of local government in the United Kingdom is rather confusing for an outsider. This confusion, also felt by many people living in the country, arises from the fact that there was a complete reorganisation in 1973 followed by less extensive reorganisations in 1986 and during the 1990s.

Local government changes made in the 1990s
The last changes were made between 1995 and 1998 and up until then there were two models for providing services for the public. In England, outside the larger towns, services were rendered by ‘two-tier’ councils. One tier was made up of the county councils, each of which served populations of around 500,000 to 1,500,000. The other tier comprised the district councils. There were between four and 14 of them within each county council area, covering local populations of about 100,000.

Their work was divided between them in various ways. County councils were responsible for services such as education, social services, transport, strategic planning, police, fire, consumer protection, refuse disposal and libraries. The district councils were responsible for local planning, housing, local highways, building regulation, environmental health and refuse collection. The councils had joint responsibility for areas like culture and recreation.

In the major urban areas, with the exception of London, as a result of the partial reorganisation of 1986, there was – and still is – a single tier of councils responsible for all the services described above.

In the 1990s central Government had concluded that the two-tier system was both inefficient and confusing. The county councils were too remote from the people. Central Government felt they had to go, and their functions transferred to the district councils with some of the smaller districts being merged.

In Scotland and Wales this is precisely what was done. In England, after much local consultation, the single tier method was supported and put into effect in some areas and rejected in rather more areas.

Where the single tier, all-purpose, councils have been implemented they are called unitary authorities.

The picture in England now is that the two tier structure now comprises some 34 county councils and 238 district councils.

Types of local government across the UK
In the United Kingdom as a whole – that is, England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland - the all-purpose authorities are made up in this way: Greater London Assembly (GLA) with directly elected Mayor, 1; London Boroughs, 32; Corporation of London, 1; Metropolitan Districts, 36; English Unitary Authorities, 46; Isles of Scilly, 1; Scottish Unitary Authorities, 32; Welsh Unitary Authorities, 22; Northern Ireland District Councils, 26.

Northern Ireland district councils are unitary authorities but perform a narrower range of functions. The sectarian difficulties in the province have meant that potentially sensitive functions were reserved by central Government.

The Council of the Isles of Scilly was already a unitary authority. The ancient Corporation of London, which covers about one square mile of central London, is normally understood to be a quaint British tradition.

Parish and town councils in England cover areas smaller than districts with populations of up to 30,000, but often much less. They have limited responsibilities for local services and they do not exist in large towns or cities. There is no difference in powers between parish and town councils. The distinction is that town councils cover urban areas and parish councils, country areas. Similar bodies in Wales are known as community councils. Those in Scotland have no statutory functions.

Very small parishes might not have an elected council, in which case decisions are taken at open parish meetings. There are about 10,376 parishes in England, 867 communities in Wales and around 1,200 in Scotland.

Councillors represent geographical wards – called electoral divisions in county councils – and serve for four years before requiring re-election. A ward may be represented by one, two or three councillors.

County councils, London boroughs and Scottish and Welsh unitaries elect all their councillors at once, every four years.

Electing councillors
Metropolitan districts elect one-third of their councillors in each of the three years out of four which are not county election years. English unitaries and second tier districts were given the choice of the two methods. Eighteen out of the 46 unitaries and 88 of the 238 districts elect by thirds. Elections are always held by the plurality – the first past the post system, even when three councillors for a ward are being elected at once. The members of the Greater London Assembly and the London Mayor are elected by proportional representation. About 88 per cent of councillors (excluding Northern Ireland) stand on behalf of one of the three main British parties – Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrats. Most of the rest stand as ‘independent’.

Local government revenues
Local authorities raise their income in a number of different ways. The council tax, levied on people based upon the estimated value of their property, raised only 25 per cent of total local revenue in 1999.

The rest is made up of central Government ‘grants’ of money to all local authorities. This forms about 48 per cent of local government revenue. The ‘non-domestic rate’ is a charge to businesses which is set by central Government. This raises about 25 per cent of local government revenue and the remainder is made up by charges for services and from reserves.

Until recently, most council decisions were taken by committees appointed from within the council, with only the most important decisions being taken by the whole council. There are rules to ensure that the political composition of the committees reflects that of the whole council.

Parliament’s Local Government Act 2000 has changed all this. In all but the smallest districts, a system has now been implemented where decisions are taken by one of a few ‘cabinet’ or ‘executive councillors’ with the committees being reduced to an advisory or scrutiny role.

This has been accompanied by a change in the role of Mayor. In the past, the Mayor of a borough or city – or Lord Mayor in the largest cities – has been appointed by the council from among its own members. This was combined with the role of chair of meetings of the full council, with an added ceremonial role of ‘first citizen’.

Directly elected Mayors
There is now provision for councils to have a Mayor directly elected by the people. This office would carry with it responsibility for most decisions in association with a small cabinet of councillors.

There are arguments for and against a directly elected Mayor. Those in favour point to ‘visible leadership’ of a locality. Very few UK council leaders have a high public profile. In a local authority with a directly elected Mayor everybody, including children as well as influential stakeholders, would know who the leader was. Advocates of the system say it is clear where the power lies. It enhances accountability by a separation of powers.

They argue that directly elected Mayors are likely to be powerful leaders. Even if the separation of powers between the Mayor and the assembly limits the formal authority of the Mayor considerably, such a strong leader would have great ‘clout’. In New Zealand, for example, all local authorities have directly elected Mayors. They have little formal ‘power’ but their leadership ‘authority’ is significant.

Those in favour also contend that directly elected Mayors can be effective in ‘partnership working’ where deals and coalitions are put together for the benefit of the community.

On the other hand, critics see directly elected Mayors as having too much power and that it is essential, from a UK point of view, to have in place sound checks and balances – which is the essence of the unwritten British constitution.

Opponents of the system assert that there might be risks in relation to probity. In the past, they remind us, there have been some appalling cases of corruption in the existing local government system as well as high profile scandals involving Mayors in other countries.

However, it could be argued that the transparency of the directly elected Mayor would lead to less corruption, not more.

The key point to stress, perhaps, is that whatever the system of local government, the arrangements for scrutiny of the executive need to be robust.

Local government in London
The elected Mayor of London sets out plans and policies for the capital covering transport, planning and development, economic development and regeneration, culture as well as a variety of environmental issues including ambient noise, waster disposal and air quality.

Ken Livingston was first elected Mayor of London on 4 May 2000. The elected Mayor, with the separately elected London Assembly, together make up the Greater London Authority. Around 600 paid staff help the Mayor and the 25-member Assembly in their duties.

The Mayor is London’s spokesman. He sets budgets for the GLA, Transport for London, the London Development Agency, the Metropolitan Police and London’s fire services. As Mayor, he chairs Transport for London. The Assembly scrutinises the Mayor’s activities and is able to question his decisions. The Assembly also has authority to investigate other issues of importance to Londoners, publish its findings and recommendations, and make proposals to the Mayor. The responsibilities of the GLA are transport, police, fire, economic development, planning, culture, environment and health.

The cost of the GLA was about £49.9m in 2002-3. Most of this is met by central government grant, with a small amount coming from the council tax (local taxation).
There is a clear separation of powers within the GLA between the Mayor – who has an executive role, making decisions on behalf of the GLA – and the Assembly, whose functions are scrutiny and the responsibility of appointing GLA staff.

London voters elect both the Mayor and the London Assembly every four years. The electoral system used to elect Assembly members is complex. It is designed to produce a distribution of seats that will always be proportional to the total votes cast across London.

Assembly Members elect a Chair and Deputy Chair in May each year. The Assembly provides a check and a balance on the Mayor in a number of ways. It has the authority to amend the Mayor’s budget (subject to a two-thirds majority decision). It can summon the Mayor, senior staff of the GLA and functional bodies, as well as bodies or persons in a contractual relationship with, or in receipt of grant from the GLA. The Assembly also provides members to serve on the Metropolitan Police Authority, the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority and the London Development Agency.

There are also ten Question Time sessions each year at which the Mayor and members of the administration can be questioned by the Assembly about their actions. The Assembly can also review the Mayor’s draft strategies and give its views on them at meetings that are open to the public. Assembly members are required to take decisions, as far as possible, in full public view. Records of meetings and papers submitted to the Assembly and its reports are available to the public. The Mayor and Assembly attend a twice-yearly People’s Question Time at which the public are able to put questions to the Mayor and Assembly. Further information

(Acknowledgments to Professor Justin Frosini; and Keith Edkins, “Guide to UK Local Government”).

London's City Hall, home of the Mayor of London and the London Assembly
Photo: Ichiro Satoh

Update November 2007:
In October 2007 the UK government’s Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act was finally approved by Parliament and overhauled the system of governance in most English councils, seven years after the landmark Local Government Act, which introduced the elected mayor model for the first time. The new Act requires council leaders to be installed for four years, thus almost creating a Swedish-style indirectly elected mayor. More